Monday, February 26, 2024

Wheeler out-duels Rojas on Santee Cooper, lands seventh BPT win

Jacob Wheeler claimed his seventh career Bass Pro Tour event win on Sunday.
Photo by Garrick Dixon

By Mitchell Forde


Presented by Fenwick, the Santee Cooper lakes that had churned out chunky bass all week simply shut down. At one point, the 10 pros duking it out during the Championship Round went 45 minutes without boating a scorable bass. They combined to catch just 18, none breaking the 4-pound mark, during the final frame.

The one angler who managed to manufacture consistent action – Jacob Wheeler. Wheeler accounted for five of those bass, which combined to weigh 14 pounds, 2 ounces and boosted his final-day total to 47-4, lifting him past Dean Rojas by 5 pounds for his seventh career Bass Pro Tour victory.

Bucking conventional Santee Cooper tactics by fishing offshore with a jighead minnow, Wheeler did what he’s done for the past six years, seemingly willing bites into existence. He started the third period 2-8 back of Rojas but promptly took the lead with a 3-12 largemouth. A little more than an hour later, with everyone else at a standstill, he boated three fish over 2 pounds in about 10 minutes. After Rojas closed within 2-6 in the final 30 minutes, Wheeler ran across Lake Marion to hit one more spot, where he added a 2-10 to all but seal the victory.

“I stuck to my game plan this whole week, and I stayed out offshore and I tried to fish isolated stuff,” Wheeler said. “It really came down to just keeping my head down and keeping my rotation going. I tried to make other tactics work, but those last two periods really came down to throwing that Freeloader, locking it in my hand. I’ve got so much confidence in it; I know it’s going to generate the bites if they are going to bite at all.”

Here’s how the Top 10 pros finished the Championship Round. Complete results can be found here.

  1. Jacob Wheeler — 47-4 (15 bass)
  2. Dean Rojas — 42-4 (17)
  3. Jesse Wiggins — 29-14 (9)
  4. Matt Becker — 19-10 (4)
  5. Dylan Hays — 18-12 (5)
  6. Casey Ashley — 16-8 (6)
  7. Dave Lefebre — 15-5 (5)
  8. Cole Floyd — 11-5 (5)
  9. James Watson — 7-13 (3)
  10. Justin Lucas — 4-8 (1)

If an instruction manual for fishing Santee Cooper existed, it would probably read

something like this: Find one or two productive areas full of shallow cover like cypress trees, stumps or grass. Dissect them thoroughly using power-fishing techniques and heavy tackle. You might go hours without a bite, but don’t be tempted to fire up the outboard and waste time running around the treacherous fishery.

Wheeler pretty much threw all that out the window. During practice, he saw a bunch of anglers cycling through the same few creeks and decided he didn’t want to mix it in the crowd. So, he decided to fish the way he’s most comfortable, graphing offshore and compiling a list of waypoints he could run throughout the event.

“I just said, ‘Forget this, there’s no way I can win this tournament at all if I continue to go on and spend all my time in these areas,’ because I just felt like we were going to get cannibalized more than anything,” Wheeler said. “So, I focused on some areas that were getting hit by the wind, I focused on some main lake stuff, I focused on trying to find a couple places that I could manage myself.”

That proved prescient. Both Wheeler and Rojas, who pulled away from the rest of the pack Sunday, largely ignored the fishery’s innumerable cypress trees, with Wheeler fishing offshore and Rojas skipping boat docks.

Wheeler wound up with 30 to 40 spots that he cycled through during the event, mostly located in the middle and lower sections of Lake Marion. He primarily targeted brushpiles, but also found a few productive locations that featured stumps or hard spots on the bottom.

While he realized his plan might not be the best way to get bites, Wheeler figured the lack of pressure would give him a better shot of having biters left during the Championship Round. He managed his fish to perfection. After putting plenty of distance between himself and the cut line on the first day of qualifying, he only caught two scorable bass for 7-4 on his second day on the water. During the Knockout Round, he amassed just enough weight (34-1) to advance without having to sweat.

“I didn’t feel like it was the winning pattern,” Wheeler said. “But I basically was able to find enough stuff that I could keep to myself and rotate on myself and really manage that it ended up being that way. And it was a combination of the right bait, the right area, the right stuff.”

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